AFAFRICA senior leaders visit Rwanda

Story and photo by Master Sgt. Jim Fisher
17th Air Force Public Affairs

KIGALI, Rwanda ― Air Forces Africa (17th Air Force) Commander Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward and Command Chief Master Sgt. Michael Grimm led a senior leader engagement team to meet with Rwandan Air Force officials Dec. 14 to 16 here. The team also interfaced with U.S. Embassy officials and their counterparts in the Office of Security Cooperation. The visit was the first AFAFRICA SLE to the central African nation since Woodward took command in June 2010.

The visit was also the second of a pair of engagements in the region, with the first stops being Entebbe and Kampala, Uganda, Dec. 12 to 14.

Woodward pointed out that while AFAFRICA is in the process of consolidating with U.S. Air Forces in Europe and 3rd Air Force, a full schedule of engagements under U.S. Africa Command continues.

“Even though we are in transition, we continue to move our African partnerships forward,” the general said. “Our mission of engagement, capacity building and pursuing shared interests continues and will continue under USAFE.”

AFAFRICA is scheduled to inactivate later this year as responsibility for supporting AFRICOM transfers to USAFE and 3rd AF.

The commander and her team were hosted by Rwandan Air Force Chief of Staff Col. Joseph Demali. In addition to discussing the way ahead for cooperation between the two air forces, they also visited the genocide museum and were ferried to an air defense site in an MI-17 helicopter. Though the general said she was thrilled to log her first flight in the MI-17, the gravity of cooperation with the RAF was underscored by the visit to the museum.

“It was a great visit. I was honored and grateful for the opportunity to spend time at the memorial. Much of the work we do engagement-wise is done to ensure nothing like the 1994 genocide can ever happen again,” Woodward said. “We came here to work with the Rwandan Air Force, and together with the whole East African community, to ensure peace and stability in the region.”

For Demali, the visit from the AFAFRICA commander was a cause for excitement, as his air force has benefitted much from engagement with the USAF in recent years.

“We have very good cooperation with the U.S. Air Force. Most of us have trained with them,” Demali said.

The colonel, like many of his key staff, has taken part in professional military education in the U.S. ― he is a graduate of the USAF Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.

“The course has helped me to embrace the change in our air force,” he said. “But we have also received instruction via other AFRICOM engagements, the (International Military Education Program) and engagements focused on air safety, maintenance, air traffic control and pilot training. This has really helped us to grow and organize our young air force.”

Demali was one of 24 air chiefs who attended the 2011 African Air Chiefs Conference in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, in April 2011. His meeting and discussion with Woodward ultimately prompted the visit, he said.

“We met at the conference, which was very well organized and very beneficial. We met many African air chiefs and learned more about how we can work together on air space safety and security. We are looking for more engagements to further this cooperation,” Demali said.

The U.S. Defense Attache to Rwanda, Maj. Chris Hurlburt, said continued cooperation between the two nations will bear fruit, as expeditionary force-oriented engagements like the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance have boosted Rwanda’s capability as a peacekeeping force.

“We just conducted our first-ever ACOTA training with the (Rwandan) Air Force, and the first class graduated about a week ago and will be headed to Darfur in January,” Hurlburt said. “This visit is very significant as it builds a lot of momentum for cooperation between the U.S. military and the Rwandan Air Force.”

The AFAFRICA commander agreed.

“We are both very excited about building on our relationship and it’s really a pleasure to work with such a professional air force,” she said.